In the sweet and slight and often charming coming-of-age tale “Youth in Revolt,” Michael Cera plays a teenager with rampaging hormones and, when the film opens at least, no obvious romantic prospects. On the face of it, this seems preposterous: Mr. Cera, who turns 22 in June, is a professional cutie-pie and very appealing to both the on screen characters (he usually gets the girl) and, to gauge from his popularity, the audience. After the movie I ran into a friend who was initially worried about this film because Mr. Cera always does the same thing, only to realize that what he does is exceptionally winning. Exactly.
“Youth in Revolt,” which was directed by Miguel Arteta, and skillfully extracted by Gustin Nash from the novel by C. D. Payne, centers on a familiar type: the frustrated virgin. (Is there any other kind beyond the convent?) The agonies of virginity have inspired myriad novels and films, if not always with as much humor as in Mr. Payne’s telling. Another novelist, Glen David Gold, has called “Youth in Revolt: The Journals of Nick Twisp” the “funniest book ever written,” suggesting a connection to Richardson’s “Clarissa.” Mr. Payne might also have skimmed Lord Byron’s long poem about Don Juan: that famed lothario is mentioned twice in the novel, and some of his adventures, at times in drag, are also echoed.
Except that Nick is only a would-be Don Juan, a boy who lusts without letup and who, when the film opens, is despairing about his sex life. He’s 16 (in the novel, he’s about to turn 14), an age that helps make Mr. Cera’s casting seem a touch less absurd and the character’s obsession with sex more comfortable. It’s a bit of a squirm when a near-child natters on about all things penile. But when the horndog in question is two years shy of the age of majority, he is in the safer zone of mid-adolescence, where characters from the likes of “Superbad” (in which Mr. Cera played another anguished virgin) roam about making goo-goo eyes at the opposite sex, and the occasional pie, with tumescent desperation.
The story, embellished by Nick’s voice-over, gets going after he, his mother, Estelle (Jean Smart), and her fuzzy sex toy, Jerry (Zach Galifianakis) head off for a short break. Jerry has a friend with a cabin, except that the retreat is actually a dilapidated motor home in the Restless Axles trailer park. There Nick meets Sheeni (Portia Doubleday), a sleepy-eyed Francophile who digs Jean-Paul Belmondo and is dating the largely unseen Trent (Jonathan Bradford Wright). Nick swoons for her after they engage in some cultural one-upmanship (throwing around names like Sinatra and Yasujiro Ozu) and proceeds to pursue her so relentlessly that if he weren’t played by Mr. Cera you might call him a stalker.
Actually, he is a stalker, though Mr. Cera is so puppyish that he seems hardly capable of doing anything worrisome. That’s true even after he develops an alter ego, François (also played by Mr. Cera), a French-accented sophisticate with a wispy mustache who proceeds to boss Nick around, giving him instructions on life and, of course, l’amour. With his white loafers, cropped white pants and immaculate shirt, François looks like he should be hustling dowagers on the Côte d’Azur. It’s a weird conceit — for one thing, it’s easy to believe that Nick might be going insane — but François is so silly, having been conjured up by a teenager who is nowhere near as worldly as he thinks, that it mostly works.
As a director Mr. Arteta, whose previous movies include “Chuck & Buck” and “The Good Girl,” has the kind of quiet talent that can be easy to overlook. He’s particularly good with actors, partly because he doesn’t crowd or push them. His scenes never feel forced or rushed, even when they skew toward the madcap. (In a bid to win Sheeni, Nick decides to become a delinquent, which is why he conjures up François.) Mr. Arteta is equally good with the supporting cast, which is packed with recognizable faces that might be distracting elsewhere but instead add different colors, including Ms. Smart (warm, sad, foolish) and Ray Liotta (sleazy, funny, scary) as a cop who comforts Estelle one day and stays the night.
“Youth in Revolt” treads well-cultivated ground, but that matters little next to Ms. Smart’s comic timing, Mr. Liotta’s salacious smile and the other grace notes delivered by Fred Willard, Justin Long and Steve Buscemi, all of whom enter briefly. What counts here is the telling and not the tale, how the camera races after Nick when he runs down a street, then moves in front of him, as if to encourage his flight. What counts is how Mr. Cera’s face, much like that of a silent-screen actor, conveys sincerity and a sense of wonder, in part because, like those performers, he doesn’t seem corrupted by the camera’s attention. For all we know, he might like to swill Cristal with Paris Hilton, but on screen he is an innocent.
“Youth in Revolt” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). As you might expect, the combination of sex and teenagers involves certain activities and inspires certain word choices.
YOUTH IN REVOLT
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Miguel Arteta; written by Gustin Nash and adapted from the novel by C. D. Payne; director of photography, Chuy Chávez; production designer, Tony Fanning; produced by David Permut; released by Dimension Films. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Michael Cera (Nick Twisp and François), Portia Doubleday (Sheeni Saunders), Jean Smart (Estelle Twisp), Zach Galifianakis (Jerry), Steve Buscemi (George Twisp), Fred Willard (Mr. Ferguson), Ray Liotta (Lance Wescott), Justin Long (Paul Saunders), Mary Kay Place (Mrs. Saunders), M. Emmet Walsh (Mr. Saunders) and Jonathan Bradford Wright (Trent).